‘Jolie Laide’ and the Very French Art of Appreciating Imperfection

published Nov 10, 2014
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(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

It’s funny how sometimes a phrase can change its meaning as you change your mindset. That is, its definition and significance remain the same and suddenly you realize that you’re the one who has come to better understand it. Such was the case recently when I was reminded of a French term I learned and thought I understood long ago: jolie laide. It technically translates to the clunky “pretty-ugly” but, in fact, is more about the elegance and maturity it takes to find beauty in the unique.

It’s easy to love pretty things; they’re just so comfortable to look at. More difficult, but ever more satisfying, is the pleasure that comes from appreciating something truly distinctive.

Instinctively we already understand this. Here on this site even, we offer you lots of opportunities to binge on pretty rooms — you could scroll from one to the next for hours. And which rooms are the ones that make you pause, take a second look and remember? The ones that weren’t symmetrical, the ones where something was just a little bit off.

Things that we gravitate to, things that keep our attention always have an aspect of eccentricity. The French may have coined a term for this, but plenty of other cultures understand this concept as well. When referring to female beauty — as is so often the case when discussing “pretty” — I’d say the closest we come in English is when we describe a woman as “handsome.” It’s not an insult, or a insinuation that she appears manish. Quite the opposite. It seems to me to be a sign of respect, a recognition that she has something beyond being merely pretty, that she possesses a powerful and regal quality that, because it’s also so unique, is impossible to describe any other way.

Maybe we could refer to this idea as balance, or rather, the shaky,”will I or won’t I tumble out of this yoga pose” feeling that balance seeks to remedy. Just like flexing those muscles is good for our bodies, countering too much of something with not-quite-enough of something else is good for our brains. It makes us take notice rather than mindlessly consuming image after image, idea after idea, and getting bogged down in the pink, fluffy prettiness.

Because, in the end, pretty is just pretty but beautiful, elegant, unique, stylish, cool and glamorous are abundantly more interesting and necessary.